The Angry Asian Buddhist’s most recent post critiques another blogger’s use of the word “ethnic.” In many discourses about race and ethnicity, the use of the term is in juxtaposition to some “non-ethnic” category, though rarely is this made explicit. In this case, the blogger in question explicitly uses the term “non-ethnic.” There are two things to note here.
First, discursively there is no distinction to be made between “race” and “ethnicity.” Whereas the latter has come to the fore in the last few decades, in practice, it is used in the same way that race has been used in the past. Both terms are social constructs, arbitrarily defined categories with fuzzy, shifting, and permeable borders. Sometimes a distinction is made between race-as-biological marker and ethnicity-as-cultural marker; but this distinction is absurd the closer one looks. There is no biological basis to support racial categories. And, much more to the point, it is not the legitimacy of the categorization scheme that matters as much as how the scheme is deployed and enacted in the social and legal realms. It was not the legitimacy of the category that mattered when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ferguson; it was the state’s desire to control persons marked by racial categories that was on trial.
I am very late to the non-Buddhism/x-Buddhism party, let alone the post that inspires what I’m about to say. So the following isn’t mean to comment on, one way or the other, that ongoing discourse. Something written on the Speculative Non-Buddhism Blog that I happened to read over this past weekend triggered some other memory in my brain, and I felt compelled to write about it. So here goes.
Back in May 2013, Glenn Wallis listed pieces of advice they’d received regarding the non-Buddhism project, a subtext of which was the advice that they should “do something productive.” I’m paraphrasing here, mostly points #1 and #4 of that piece that call on the non-Buddhists to be “substantive” and “address alternatives.” This sort of reaction to criticism, this advice that one should “do something,” is one I’ve seen in other contexts, and it’s one that always gives me pause.
This past weekend at the American Academy of Religion, I participated in a panel for the Dharma Academy of North America. Our panel was organized by the wonderful Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and it brought together a variety of perspectives on the transmission and development of Buddhism in the United States. More details on other papers can be found here (PDF, see page 6).
I recorded my talk and have posted audio below. The audio quality isn’t great, and I feel as though my argument is larger than a fifteen-minute presentation can really hold. But I also believe that there might be the germ of a good idea here, so in the off chance anyone else finds this topic useful, here it is.
A couple of things: this piece is about pop-culture and mass media representations of Buddhism in the U.S., representations often done by non-Buddhists and perpetuated within Buddhist media. These representations are a reflection of just one discourse among many, and the icon of the Tranquil Meditator I propose here is just an icon, an imperfect reflection of certain aspects of our culture. But drawing our attention to this icon and the discourse it represents, I hope to actually move past it to discuss more important issues.
Namely, I believe that Buddhist philosophies, doctrines, ethics, and practices potentially contain extremely useful and powerful tools and strategies for solving contemporary social problems and collective suffering. And by that I don’t mean that mindfulness/meditation alone can save the world. The style of meditation represented by the icon of the Tranquil Meditator is just one Buddhist tool, one practice. And no one practice or spiritual technology can solve all of our problems. Moreover, what the Tranquil Meditator represents is extremely seductive; she promises a type of instant psychological and emotional gratification that may alleviate immediate or short-term suffering without necessarily addressing the underlying or root causes, thus merely delaying any potential cure to that suffering. And it is precisely those underlying or root causes — as well as practical and reasonable solutions to these causes — that I would like to see more people (especially Buddhists) talking about in the media, rather than just the constant quest for short-term happiness.
I believe we can do better.
I’m deeply grateful to Karma Lekshe Tsomo for organizing this panel and to DANAM for providing us the opportunity to present our work. I am also grateful to my fellow panelists whose own papers were of far better quality than my own! I’m humbled by their hard work and dedication and hope to see all of our work developed and published in the near future.
I hope to write another post soon about other experiences and lessons learned at this year’s AAR. So stay tuned.
Lastly, because I don’t technically have permission for all of the images I used during my presentation, I do not feel comfortable posting the slides here. But if you’re interested in either the slides themselves or in getting a hard copy of my paper, let me know and I might be able to send them to you.